The NT$20 adults will pay to view the National Museum of History's current exhibit on art of the Congo is worth it if only to see a single mask. It sits under Plexiglas against the wall in one of the several rooms of this exhibit -- as do dozens of other masks -- but stands out for being the face of a Chinese man.
"A Chinese mask in an exhibition of west African art?" you ask yourself while doing a double-take, looking more closely at the eyes. Yes, it's a Chinese man. And his story is one of the more fascinating for local visitors to an exhibit of artifacts from a world away and lifetimes ago.
Dated to the 19th century, the wooden mask is believed to have been made by Yombe or Woyo tribesmen of the northern parts of what is now the Republic of Congo. Another face sits next to him, the mask of a Chinese woman made out in the image of the ideal Congolese beauty. Both are flawless and -- the male figure especially -- seem somehow alive or nearly so. And, in a sense, they were.
Around the corner from them is an excerpt from the book by Gavin Menzies, 1421, telling how Chinese emperor Yongle sent his admiral Zheng He (
While some historians and anthropologists refute much of Menzies' findings, the exhibit offers these masks as evidence that Zheng's expeditions made it at least as far as Africa's west coast. One thing is certain: Regardless of how far Zheng traveled, his were among the last great Chinese naval expeditions. Historians believe it's highly likely, however, that Chinese men sailed aboard the Portuguese ships that later plied a trade between Europe and China.
The masks stand out for another reason: They are among the few objects in this exhibition that offer a narrative to lead visitor's imaginations across the hundreds of years these artifacts encompass. After viewing so many rooms of so many masks, ritual spoons and reliquaries, the mind goes numb without a story to put the items in context. A Congolese hut built in one room offers respite from the rows of statuary, but it lacks the life of that stern-looking Chinese mask. In the ideal place to tell a story of daily Congolese life, the exhibition offers no information as to what goes on inside the hut or outside it.
This is not the first time curators at the history museum have failed to shed light on the dark continent. Another exhibition there a year ago this month, Visiond d'Afrique, was little more than a collection of artifacts set under Plexiglas and bazaar of African-made goods for sale in the expanded gift store. With the current exhibit, at least, the museum has provided cellular handsets that offer recorded information on a dozen or so artifacts. The rest bear only bare-bones placards of the "wooden mask. 19th century" variety.
The exhibit will be taken down and moved to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts on Jan. 21. It will be interesting to see how the curators there decide to present it. It might well be worth the wait.
On a side note, should you decide to spend your NT$20 to see that Chinese mask at the history museum, be sure to step upstairs to take in a separate exhibit of ink works by Gao Yifeng (